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What Is the Relationship Between Fatty Liver and Cirrhosis?

Fatty liver disease occurs when the organ's function is compromised.
An ultrasound can be used to detect fatty deposits and determine the extent of cirrhosis.
Because the liver filters toxins and waste from the blood, if the organ fails to work properly a person can become seriously ill.
Unintended weight loss is a symptom of cirrhosis.
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  • Written By: J.M. Willhite
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 17 November 2014
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Cirrhosis is an irreversible, life-threatening condition that is a complication of fatty liver disease characterized by extensive liver scarring and inflammation. Triggered by the progression of nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH) or fatty liver disease, cirrhosis manifests with a gradual worsening of symptoms that jeopardize widespread organ and blood vessel function. Treatment for this progressive condition generally involves lifestyle and dietary changes coupled with appropriate treatment if complications develop.

More frequently than not, cirrhosis is a condition that society associates with alcoholism, but that isn't always the case. Nonalcoholic steatohepatitis is a relatively benign condition diagnosed in people with compromised liver function, often in individuals whose alcohol consumption is nonexistent or minimal at best. The condition is characterized by the liver's inability to metabolize fat that eventually accumulates in the liver. Generally, fat accumulation is a benign occurrence, but in instances where the collection becomes excessive, it may cause inflammation and significantly impair organ function. Severe inflammation can ultimately cause irreversible scarring that may compromise liver health and eventually cause organ failure.

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As the main station for detoxifying and filtering the blood, the liver's pivotal role becomes jeopardized as it loses healthy tissue to scarring. The more scarring that occurs, the less blood the organ is able to filter properly, which compromises the health of not only one’s blood but the rest of his or her body. Liver failure often necessitates transplantation if the individual is to survive. Therefore, a timely diagnosis of fatty liver and cirrhosis is essential to lessening one’s chances for premature death.

Cirrhosis may be suspected following a physical examination and palpation of the abdominal region. A distended abdomen or enlarged spleen is often a tell-tale sign of cirrhosis that generally prompts additional testing to confirm a diagnosis. Imaging tests, including magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), may be used to evaluate the abdominal region and check for any abnormalities affecting the liver. In most cases, suspected fatty liver and cirrhosis may be confirmed with a liver biopsy.

Individuals with severe symptoms of fatty liver may often experience pronounced fatigue, unintended weight loss, and abdominal discomfort. If left untreated, the condition may progress to cirrhosis. In addition to the signs of fatty liver, individuals with cirrhosis experience a gradual onset of more severe symptoms that can include impaired cognition, skin discoloration, and abnormal bleeding as characterized by persistent nosebleeds and blood stool.

Due to the progressive, irreversible nature of fatty liver and cirrhosis, treatment is generally centered on stalling or slowing disease progression. Individuals with cirrhosis inevitably develop compromised immunity, which makes it difficult for the body to fight infection. Additionally, they may demonstrate pronounced weight loss due to the body's inability to absorb nutrients.

Oftentimes, lifestyle and dietary changes are recommended to help alleviate discomfort and some symptoms. Individuals may be encouraged to stop drinking alcohol and consume a healthy diet low in fat. In the presence of complications, treatment for fatty liver and cirrhosis is entirely dependent on the nature and severity of the complication. Supplemental vitamin K, antibiotics, and diuretics may be administered to alleviate secondary issues that arise from the presence of fatty liver and cirrhosis, such as impaired blood coagulation, infection, and excessive fluid retention.

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